Eileen Caiger Gray reviews The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
This retelling of supreme favourite of CS Lewis stories, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is full to brimming with sparkling wonder and innovation. Taken to Narnia on a magical journey, full of breathtaking spectacle and emotion, it’s not surprising the audience go wild with delight, not only at the end of the piece but at stunning moments throughout. Stunning indeed are the hypnotic, pink-drenched cubes of Turkish Delight that wave and dance, tempt and tease – and grow to mind-boggling proportions; stunning, too, are gigantic springtime flowers that slide down from afar. At the end of Act One, though, as the White Queen rises up, her vast, white, parachute skirts encircling the entire stage, stunning reaches a whole new level!
Exclusively for this exciting marathon of drama, musicianship, lighting, movement, props, puppetry and amazing logistics, the auditorium has been adapted to give a full in-the-round experience, the audience becoming part of the story. Before the show, as musicians in tin hats play wartime hits, actors in uniform, armed with clipboards, roam the aisles, ’rounding up’ the spectators. For they, along with Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter, will be boarding the train as evacuees to the countryside. It’s a cleverly devised train, too, with steam and lights and all manner of lurchings and shakings.
Props, puppetry, and aerial acrobatics from ropes and vast, silken lengths fuel this intensely visual spectacle, in which the entire ensemble strives hard, aided by trap-doors and overhead danglings, to make everything work like magic. Props – tables, rugs, trays, tea-sets, cakes, lamp-shades, lanterns, wardrobe doors, the Beavers’ (fully smoking!) stove, dark Stone Table, fluttering snow, flowing, snowy landscapes – sometimes seem to appear and vanish entirely under their own steam, all thanks to maids (some comically bearded!), white dwarves with plucked chicken heads and bottoms, and all the cast. Only the lamppost and the wooden ladder to the prow-like pinnacle, remain totally unmoved. While puppets bring to life mice, butterfly and Schrodinger the furry cat, most impressive of all, quite rightly, is mighty Aslan, his vast Lion frame borne overhead by many hands, above the imposing, fur-clad form of Iain Johnstone. Later, the glittering, grey masks of the deformed hags and monsters who amass for battle induce a genuine shudder.
Adults play the parts of big brother Peter-in-shorts, sensible Susan, the snivelling, treacherous Edmund, and bigger-than-you-might-expect Lucy, making them slightly more modern-day friendly and giving them reet proper Yorkshire accents. The White Witch, played cruel, commanding and icy-hearted by Carla Mendonça, has no such leanings. What she does have is a gem-encrusted dagger of a Terminator finger and she’s not afraid to use it! Another triumph is Ira Mandela Siobhan as malicious, wolf-headed, sharp-toothed Maugrim, his lithe, rippling, threatening twists and turns and supple, writhing death earning him well deserved applause. Fine-voiced Peter Caulfield creates a delightful, hairy-legged Mr Tumnus (with black umbrella, of course) while loveable Mr and Mrs Beaver carry on the wartime theme by sporting airman’s hats and goggles, and the other animals (for light relief and to comic effect) communicate on improvised walkie-talkies.
Playing a vital part (-indeed, dozens of vital parts-) in creating and sustaining underlying mood and emotion, both dark and light, throughout, are the musicians, with soundscapes of hypnotic piano, sweet vocals, eerie wailings, electronic throbs and pulsings, clarinet, flute, drum and the bonus of a clog-dancing, accordion-playing Father Christmas and a Professor on valve trombone. Superb work. Vital for similar reasons is the lighting (and darkness), moonlike paper lanterns turning green, orange, multi-coloured or blood red to great effect.
There’s such an energetic buzz of creativity, enjoyment and dedication from this entire cast of multi-skilled multi-taskers as they move, dance, sing and enact the drama in so many guises, both onstage and behind the scenes, that any child, any adult, can’t fail to be thrilled many times over.
The show plays in Leeds until January 27th 2018. https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/lion-witch-wardrobe/